In the postideological YouTube-topia that Orwell couldn’t have foreseen, information flows in all directions and does as it pleases, for better or for worse, serving no masters and obeying no party line. The telescreens, tiny, mobile and ubiquitous, at times seem to be working independently, for some mysterious purpose all their own. This morning, when I sat down to write, I was distracted by a story on my computer about a Google Street View camera that snapped pictures of a corpse lying on a bloody street in urban Brazil. I clicked on the link, unable to do otherwise, and up came the awful, disconcerting image. For a moment, I felt like a voyeur, spiritually dirtied by what I saw. A moment later I was checking the weather report and the status of my I.R.A.

Even Big Brother himself was not so cold. He, at least, had a motive for his peeping — to maintain order, to shore up his position and to put down possible rebellions — but I and the countless Little Brothers like me lack any clear notion of what we’re after. A fleeting sensation of omnipotence? The gratification of idle curiosity? Our nonstop trafficking in stolen images, sometimes as consumers and sometimes as producers (is there any meaningful difference anymore?), adds up to a story without a plot. Is it a tragic story? On occasion. It was tragic for Tyler Clementi and for his roommate, who ruined his own life by spying on another’s, but for those who are suddenly lofted to fame and riches by achieving viral visibility, it’s closer to a feel-good comedy.